Recovering From Dependence on Drugs or Alcohol

The use of alcohol or drugs can get out of control for some people. While no one intends to become physically dependent on a substance, it can sneak up and begin to damage a person's life in many different ways. It usually starts with social using or drinking and then becomes a way to relieve stress or numb emotional pain. As time passes, it becomes more difficult to go without the substance, and larger and larger amounts are needed just to feel good. It's an addiction when people continue to seek and consume a substance despite harming themselves and the people around them.

If you think you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol, or know you have a problem, change is possible. It usually takes treatment, support from others, plus commitment and hard work.  But you can get your life back. Treatment and support are available to service members through the substance abuse program of their service branch. For military family members struggling with addiction, treatment services are covered under TRICARE. Eligible veterans can also access substance abuse programs through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Making the decision to change

After recognizing drug or alcohol abuse and the possibility of addiction, the first step toward recovery is making the decision to get sober. This decision is never easy because it involves much more than just getting clean.  A person actually recovers from addiction by changing familiar behaviors and creating a new lifestyle. If you want to get free of a substance that controls your life, you must also:

Give up people, places and things that trigger cravings. Try to avoid people who you have been drinking or using with or who encourage your abuse, either directly or indirectly. Stay away from places where you bought or used drugs or alcohol. And get rid of things that make you think about drinking or using, such as drug paraphernalia or alcohol and bar equipment in your home. You may not be able to steer clear of all situations that trigger cravings, but being more aware of them will help you avoid being caught off guard.

Become totally honest with yourself and others. Lying is a normal part of an addict's life. Addicts lie about every aspect of their substance abuse in an effort to hide their addiction. Lying becomes so routine that addicts lie to themselves as much as to others, and telling the truth no longer comes naturally. Recovery requires complete honesty. It may take some time and practice telling the truth before it begins to feel right.  

Learn how to deal with stress in new and healthier ways. For many people, addiction began as a way to manage stress or cope with painful feelings through the use of drugs or alcohol. Using a substance may seem like the only remedy for anxiety, loneliness, anger or sadness, but it's not. These emotions are part of life, and to recover from addiction, you'll need to have new and better ways to get through difficult times. Learning new skills and techniques to manage stress is an important part of treatment.

Getting treatment

Once you've decided to confront your addiction, you'll need to get treatment. Because addiction changes the way the brain functions, going it alone doesn't work. Treatment helps you rebuild the brain's connections that have been altered by addiction. However, there's not a single treatment approach that fits everyone's needs.

For example, many, but not all, substance abusers require detoxification at the beginning of treatment. Medication may be an important part of treatment for some people but not others. And inpatient care, residential rehabilitation and outpatient services are possible treatment options depending on a person's age, history of substance abuse and other physical or behavioral health conditions.

As you explore options with a professional care provider, remember that there's no quick and easy treatment for addiction. Intensive treatment for weeks or months, followed by long-term follow-up and support, is often necessary for recovery. Your ongoing commitment to the recovery process is also crucial.

An effective treatment program will address more than just your substance abuse. At a minimum, you can expect your treatment program to provide:

Education and therapy sessions on addiction, getting sober and preventing relapse. Before you can successfully resist your addictive substance, you'll need to understand how it affects your brain and your body, and how to manage triggers leading to relapse. Your participation in these sessions may be as an individual or in a group.

Counseling to help you develop new coping skills. You might work with a behavioral health or substance abuse counselor, individually or with your family, to develop effective ways to handle feelings like anger, anxiety and the hurts that are part of life. Counseling will also help you deal with underlying problems such as depression or conflicts in your family or workplace. And it can help you learn specific strategies you can use to relax and get through difficult times without using drugs or alcohol.

Self-help groups for drug and alcohol addiction

Joining a support group can be a very important aspect of recovery. Meetings of self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are widely available on military installations and in civilian communities. They offer a safe place where you can connect with others who know what you're going through and are an effective way to discuss and receive support for the challenges of maintaining sobriety. Recovering addicts are typically encouraged to start attending a self-help group during treatment and continue for as long as they find meetings helpful. They're also urged to return to their meeting as soon as possible after a relapse. Some recovered addicts stay involved in a self-help group for years. They become group leaders and sponsors and freely share personal experiences with addiction and offer their insights to help new members.

Most but not all recovery support groups follow the 12-step model developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Twelve-step programs typically have a spiritual emphasis and the goal of total abstinence. Although the specific steps differ slightly between organizations, they generally treat recovery as a process that involves:

  • Admitting that you cannot control your addiction or compulsion
  • Recognizing a higher power (as you understand it) that can give strength
  • Examining past mistakes with the help of a sponsor (experienced member)
  • Making amends for these mistakes
  • Learning to live a new life free from old, unhealthy habits and ways of behaving
  • Helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration's fact sheet on mutual support groups provides additional information on 12-step programs as well as other organized self-help groups. Use the list of support group websites to find a meeting in your area that fits your needs.

Maintaining sobriety

Having family and friend's support, getting involved in new activities like a hobby or volunteering, and taking care of yourself by exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep are all things that will help you maintain sobriety. But remember, relapse is a common part of the recovery process. Instead of seeing it as failure (if it happens), get sober again as quickly as you can. Try to evaluate the causes of your setback and what you might have done differently. A relapse can be turned into an opportunity to learn from mistakes and strengthen your commitment to sobriety.

If you think you may be abusing or addicted to drugs or alcohol, a Military OneSource consultant (800-342-9647) can help you identify the resources or support programs that will be right for you. If you're an active duty service member and have voluntarily sought help, you can receive confidential treatment through your service's substance abuse program. If your command is aware of your problem or you were ordered into treatment, military leaders are expected to support good faith efforts to recover from substance abuse or addiction and welcome clean and sober service members back into their units.


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